Irish Crimean: Contemporary identity politics as manifestation of existential crisis


August 8, 2017 – Fort Russ News – 

Op-ed by Padraig Joseph McGrath – “The Irish Crimean”

A member of the KPRF (Communist Party) here in Simferopol told me a story a few days ago – back in the bad old, NGO-infested days (before the Russian government wisely cleared all or most of the NGO-losers out), obviously a lot of people were worried about naive, impressionable and ultimately simple-minded kids getting indoctrinated by liberal bullsh1t….

At that time, the Crimean communist organization was part of the Communist Party of Ukraine. They selected one of their smarter Comsomol kids, a 19 year-old girl, and deployed her as a spy in the NGO youth-group meetings.

She was exposed after 4 or 5 months, because she just wasn’t very good at pretending to be as intellectually limited as the kids around her.

“She was quite a smart kid,” said my KPRF friend, “but not smart enough to pretend to be stupid…..”

“Maybe she simply understood the cognitive cost,” I said, “I grew up surrounded by smart people who spent all day pretending to be stupid – in the end, they all became actually stupid. They all cognitively deteriorated. Whatever you pretend to be, you eventually become. An intelligent person, such as your 19 year-old Comsomol girl, would intuitively understand that pretending is just not good for your health – it’s just fucking damaging. Your self-awareness just gradually fucking erodes….”

I’ve seen that happen to so many initially smart people.

After years of being habitually disingenuous, their self-awareness just erodes to the point that they themselves don’t even know when they’re being disingenuous.

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So that 19 year-old Comsomol kid made the right call, I think – she intuitively understood that pretending isn’t cost-free, and she got out before she got damaged.

Hegel analyzes a very similar process in his critique of ancient stoicism. Under the conditions of atomization and political repression which existed under the Roman Empire, how was the Roman patrician to maintain a level of freedom? Unable to act outwardly or politically, Roman society developed the beginnings of what has become known by intellectual historians as “a cult of interiority.” Even though the phrase “cult of interiority” is more usually used in the context of discussing the late 18th century, the point remains that Roman stoicism was one of its historical precursors – the genealogical connections are clear. In the absence of any opportunity for real political action in the world, Roman society fetishized the inner cultivation of the self.

In the age of neo-liberal economics, democratic rollback and gender-politics, does this sound familiar?

The problem is that, as any phenomenologist (including Hegel) would tell you, consciousness is not simply something that we have – it is something that we do. That is to say, consciousness is activity. One implication of Hegel’s famous observation that “It was not so much from slavery as through slavery that humanity was emancipated” is that the soul is fortified through resistance – like a piece of initially pliable metal, the soul has a certain elasticity, and becomes harder, better defined, more compact, more indissoluble, the longer and harder it is hammered.

But consciousness is, and can only be, activity, and activity in this context means resistance. Therefore, the slave may certainly develop his soul, but not the patrician who sees biting his lip as a necessary survival-skill, and therefore the self-cultivation of the stoic is just a grandiose vanity. With no opportunity for consciousness to translate into worldly action, this “cult of interiority” results in a subjectivity which has no contingent content, a completely empty and pointless kind of subjectivity. Hegel wasted no opportunity to critique what he called “cults of the beautiful soul” – including those found in Buddhism, in early medieval Christianity, and in romanticism – he saw all monasticisms as essentially vain and pointless expressions of religious life.

In a social world wherein there is no overarching sense of right, wherein we are all subject to arbitrary abuses of political power, survival may depend on the development of a capacity to swallow one’s pride, bite one’s lip, to be disingenuous, to acquiesce. While doing so, the moral agent tells himself that, in his own mind, he really knows which way is up – he defensively establishes and withdraws into his inner citadel of consciousness. As time passes, however, the demand of survival also entails that, as he hears himself speak, he must gradually lose the ability to distinguish between his prudential disingenuous spiel and what his conscience tells him. When we find ourselves parachuted into such a world, at first we maintain a sense of ironic distance, but we can float above social conditions for only so long. Ironic distance eventually gives way to a resistance-phase. Resistance morphs into acquiescence before, finally, self-reification becomes a functional necessity. How else are our rationalizations to sound convincing?

For the purposes of analysis, isn’t all of this applicable to contemporary liberal virtue-signalling and hyper-genderization?

Clearly, they are just “cults of the beautiful soul” – like Roman stoicism was, like all monasticisms, like romanticism was, like westernized Buddhism.

In the age of neo-liberal economic tyranny, real political action seems impossible to most millennials, so they establish their “cult of the beautiful soul” – they establish their inner citadel of virtuous subjectivity. They decorate it with one or more of a million different gender-options. The proliferation of gender-identities could very well be explained this way – with real political action in the world seeming impossible to most millennials, gender becomes one of the few ways that their sense of self, their subjectivity, can be “filled in” with any kind of contingent or historical content at all – they see identity-politics as their only alternative to annihilation. 

The observation that gender-politics and identity-politics more broadly are fetishistic substitutes for real politics would seem obvious to most Marxists, but this holds also at a deeper level – insofar as consciousness itself, in order to avoid implosion or annihilation, must be political or at least pseudo-political. Trapped from birth in the strangle-hold of neo-liberal economics, and with huge costs attached to resisting or opting out, the gender-obsessed millennials are not merely driven by the need for a substitute for real politics – genderization is their desperate attempt to avoid total annihilation of consciousness altogether and, as such, it is a manifestation of existential crisis.

Padraig McGrath was born in the Republic of Ireland in 1973. He has lived in Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic, and has published journalism and commentary on social and philosophical issues for a number of media for 15 years. He moved to Simferopol, Crimea in December 2013, 3 months before Crimea’s re-unification with Russia, and still lives there.

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